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At Ease, at Last

Bill Plaschke

Roy Gleason, the Dodger who batted 1.000 before being drafted and going off to Vietnam, is back in the fold

September 19, 2003|Bill Plaschke

It has been 40 years, but he still remembers the pitch. The second pitch. The final pitch.

It was late September 1963. It was a low inside fastball. He lined it down the left-field line. He sprinted to second base. The crowd roared.

Inside a crisp new Dodger uniform, Roy Gleason's heart leaped.

He was 20, and after his first major league plate appearance, he was batting 1.000.

"I thought I was going to be a superstar," he remembered, and how was he to know?

How does anyone know that his first chance is his last? How can anyone so young imagine a future so unimaginable that, instead of running into the dugout embrace of his teammates, he should have stayed on second base forever?

It has been 40 years, and Roy Gleason is still batting 1.000.

Before he was sent to home plate again in the majors, he was plucked from spring training and shipped to Vietnam. His baseball skills were damaged in jungle fighting. His World Series ring disappeared at a base camp in the bush.

The outfielder returned to the Dodgers long enough for them to realize he would never be the same. They sold him to the Angels, who quickly shipped him to the Mexican League, his last stop before an auto accident ended his pro career with that lone plate appearance.

If only Roy Gleason could have stayed on second base forever ...

He retired in Orange County, in obscurity, working as a furniture mover, a bartender, a car salesman.

He is the only Los Angeles Dodger to have earned a Purple Heart, yet when the team needed a hero for an old-timers' game or autograph session, nobody called.

Records indicate he was the only player with major league experience who fought in Vietnam, yet when the team needed somebody to throw out a pitch on Memorial Day, nobody remembered.

Disconnected from the organization, tethered to his remorse, Roy Gleason finally stopped going to Dodger Stadium in 1984.

"I just couldn't bear it," he said. "I thought I was through with baseball forever."

Then, an innocent phone call, an inquiring historian, and a giant embracing tradition.

A couple of years ago, Wally Wasinack, an Orange County businessman, bought a car from Gleason. The salesman's story was so compelling, Wasinack decided to write a book about him.

This summer, Wasinack phoned the Dodgers in search of records and photos.

"I had no idea what they would say, I didn't know whether they had even heard of him," Wasinack said.

Answering the phone, Dodger historian Mark Langill had indeed heard of Gleason but knew little else. About five minutes into the conversation, his jaw dropped.

"I knew the name, I knew the one-for-one, but to hear the rest of it, I was fascinated," he said. "That this story was out there for 40 years and nobody had written about it was unbelievable."

Langill invited Gleason to Dodger Stadium. Gleason hesitantly accepted. Once there, he reluctantly shared.

"He was so humble, so genuine," Langill said. "It was like pulling teeth to get him to talk about his accomplishments."

Then, slowly, amazingly, walking from the clubhouse to the upper press dining room, Gleason realized something about this team he had tried to forget.

They had never forgotten him.

Tom Lasorda spotted him in a hallway and reminded him of his big signing bonus. Bruce Froemming, an umpire, recognized him immediately and remembered a minor league rhubarb. Aging scouts stood up from their dinners to pat his back and tell him stories.

Their visit eventually ended up in the tunnel behind the Dugout Club, next to a wall bearing most of the names from the Dodgers' all-time roster.

Gleason scanned the montage and said, "I'm sure I'm not up here."

Langill stood behind him thinking, "Please be up there. Please be up there."

After a few minutes, they found it, above Roy Campanella, below Delino DeShields.

Roy Gleason

"I didn't really feel like I played enough to warrant being called a major leaguer," he said.

He touched the wall gently, with a finger that has been numb since he took shrapnel in Vietnam. His eyes glazed. The truth hit.

Once a Dodger, always a Dodger, even if only momentarily a Dodger.

He had never left second base after all.

Sgt. Gleason looked at Langill and shook his head.

"I'm glad I'm on this wall, instead of the other wall," he said.

*

As a kid at Garden Grove High, he was so talented, he would pitch batting practice to the big leaguers at the Coliseum.

As a prospect, he was so valued, Ted Williams recruited him personally for the Boston Red Sox.

But Roy Gleason wanted to be only a Dodger, so he signed quickly, and was promoted quickly from the lower minor leagues, getting a September call-up to the big league team after only his second full minor league season.

Once here in 1963, he realized he was faster than everyone but Willie Davis. He was used seven times as a pinch-runner, once as a batter, and everything was possible.

"I knew they had a great team, and I knew it might be a while before I got back," Gleason said. "But I knew I could eventually play here."

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